Vanilla represents the essence of home-style cooking
Louise Cowell - founder, chef and owner of Vanilla bakery in Mosque Street, Mid-Levels - has a long and rich history with food. She managed a coffee shop near London's Liverpool Street station and worked as a pastry chef at the Savoy Hotel before setting off on a round-the-world trip. She spent six months picking oranges in Australia, and when she arrived in Hong Kong, worked in the production kitchen of the then new Pacific Coffee Company, Wyndham Group, and the Staunton Street Patisserie. She opened Vanilla in 2005.
How did the name Vanilla come about? And how did you get started?
Vanilla is mainly a cake shop, and I wanted a name that had something to do with cakes. Vanilla is also an easy name to remember, and a happy name.
I always wanted to start my own business, and at the time, rents weren't too steep as the economy was just picking up after Sars. The rent is not too bad; it's gone up about 40 per cent since 2005. This space used to be a sort of Chinese Chicken on the Run.
What's the philosophy behind the food you serve?
We make home-style food, comfort food, cooked from scratch with fresh ingredients, not frozen. This kind of food isn't widely available in Hong Kong, because most takeaway food here is Chinese or Asian. People in Hong Kong have a busy lifestyle and don't have much time to cook. A few of my customers have ordered a whole fish pie, and have asked to take it home in the glass dish it's been cooked in, so it looks like it's just come out of their own oven.
Besides cakes, you also make jams and chutneys. Tell us about them.
Our jams and chutneys are made from fresh fruit and vegetables. They contain no added pectin, preservatives, or additives. My mum used to make jams and chutneys from the fruit and veg grown in the garden, so most of those recipes come from her. The jars are quite expensive to buy, which is why we have to charge a little more.
Were your parents a big culinary influence on you?
Mum and dad were more enthusiastic gardeners than cooks. My mother was a nurse, and my dad was in the spectacles business.
They rented an allotment at the bottom of their garden and grew rhubarb, all sorts of berries and also runner beans and root vegetables. Mum would do the cooking during the week and take care of the allotment from Monday to Friday. Dad would do the cooking on the weekend, making something fancier. He did nice steaks. Sometimes I gave a hand planting seeds and weeding the garden.
How did you end up a cook?
My aunt has a hotel in Kent by the sea, and my cousin went to catering college before me. Since I didn't know what to do with my life, my mum advised me to do what my cousin had done.
You left England some time ago. What was the food like back then?
The food was awful when I left, especially around Chelmsford in Essex, which is where I lived. And it still is. It was all gammon ham and steak - no variety. And there were no nice ? la carte restaurants then.
Who are your customers?
We have a lot of regulars of different ages. We get a mixture of local Chinese, who tend to buy more cakes (especially on Saturdays and Sundays), and Western people who mostly come in the evening. We also get a lot of customers from the vets and pet shops [opposite and adjacent to Vanilla]. There used to be a flower shop at the end of the street which also brought a lot of people in. We're hoping that the Pacific Coffee Company that has just opened opposite will bring more people to the area.
We do the catering for Tree furniture store in Ap Lei Chau about three times a week. We also prepare salad and sandwich platters and whole cakes and sliced cakes for companies such as Morgan Stanley, GAM, and Baker & McKenzie, as well as a few smaller firms. A lot of our food goes to The Centre [Queen's Road Central] and the Kinwick Centre.